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The Great Leap Forward of the Chinese Navy

Cambodian navy crew stand on a patrol boat at the Ream naval base in Sihanoukville, southwest of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 26, 2019.


Heng Sinith/Associated Press

First stealthily, then by degrees, and now with leaps and bounds, China is building an ocean-going navy and a network of bases to expand its military and political influence. A new secret Chinese military base in Cambodia should wake up the American political class, including the top brass of the US Navy, to what is quickly becoming a global Chinese challenge.

The Washington Post quoted Western officials on Monday about the facility under construction at Cambodia’s Ream naval base in the Gulf of Thailand. The Journal reported in 2019 that Cambodia and China secretly agreed to let the Chinese military use a naval base in the Southeast Asian nation. China and Cambodia denied it at the time.

But now China is building a naval facility for its exclusive use “and taking extraordinary measures to cover up the operation,” according to the Post.

The Cambodian government denies the latest report, and that’s no surprise. Cambodia’s constitution prohibits foreign military bases within the country’s borders, and the presence of Chinese forces could spark a nationalist backlash. China’s naval base will also not sit well with Cambodia’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, which has been a major US non-NATO ally since 2003, and Vietnam, which has strained relations with China.

Beijing has a long history of lying about its military intentions. Remember Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge not to militarize the man-made islands in the South China Sea he developed under President Barack Obama. The islands are now home to a range of advanced Chinese military equipment.

Earlier this year, China and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific signed a security pact. Both governments deny the deal will lead to a Chinese base or permanent presence, but China is operating in stages until one day the world learns there is an operating base. The Solomon Islands are not far from Australia and are close to major commercial shipping lanes.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently toured eight South Pacific countries to mobilize support for a security and development agreement. Pacific nations have rejected a formal deal, but China will come back with more money and other promises. China wants to dominate the shipping lanes that have long been guaranteed by the reach of the US Navy.

China wants a global network of bases that would facilitate power projection. The PLA already has a base in the East African nation of Djibouti. Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of US Africa Command, told Congress in March that Beijing also wanted a base in West Africa on the Atlantic Ocean. The Journal reported last year that US officials suspected China of wanting a base in the United Arab Emirates, although construction halted after Washington intervened.

China’s strategic objectives here are political, economic and military. Beijing has long taken a mercantilist view of natural resources and distrusts normal trade rules. Like Japan in the 1930s, Beijing believes an extensive backbone network is needed to guarantee the supply of oil, minerals and other raw materials in the event of sanctions, global shortages or conflict.

Military bases are also a powerful form of persuasion for smaller nations skeptical of Chinese intentions. The bases help monitor the movements of American ships and threaten American installations on Guam and elsewhere in the event of a conflict. A core network will also help China deploy and use its own version of the US satellite-based global positioning system.

With the proliferation of PLA bases comes an ever-growing Chinese navy. The United States is heading in the opposite direction, with 297 ships and plans to drop to 280 by 2027. China has 355 and is heading towards 460 by 2030. Beijing relies on smaller ships, but it will soon launch an advanced aircraft carrier that will allow it to project air power overseas.

Some members of Congress seem aware of this relative decline of the US Navy, but the US Navy and the Pentagon do not seem alarmed. They should be. China’s military is advancing around the world, and the best guarantee of peacekeeping is a US army and navy capable of reassuring allies and deterring hawks in Beijing.

Summary and Prospects: The 1986 film, “Top Gun,” was credited with increasing Navy recruiting rates by 500%. Perhaps the sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” can do the same as it soars at the box office. Images: Paramount Pictures/Everett Collection Composition: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the print edition of June 8, 2022 under the title “The Great Leap Forward of the Chinese Navy”.


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